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The final episode of the NBC television sitcom “Friends” aired in May, but the 10-year show is destined to live on in the legal system as part of a possibly precedent-setting lawsuit over workplace harassment. The California Supreme Court on Wednesday unanimously granted review in a case filed by Amaani Lyle, a former writers’ assistant who claimed that vulgar jokes and crass behavior by the show’s writers subjected her to a hostile work environment. A black woman, she claimed racial and sexual harassment, while the writers argued that their words and actions were part of the creative process. In the “Friends” suit, the show’s writers argued that “creative necessity” justified talking about female cast members in a sexual way, making sexually explicit drawings and simulating masturbation during meetings. A unanimous panel of Los Angeles’ 2nd District Court of Appeal called that argument unique and possibly legitimate, ruling in April that a jury should decide whether the actions constitute harassment. “To the extent defendants can establish the recounting of sexual exploits, real and imagined, the making of lewd gestures and the displaying of crude pictures denigrating women was within ‘the scope of necessary job performance’ and not engaged in for purely personal gratification or out of meanness or bigotry or other personal motives,” Justice Earl Johnson Jr. wrote, “defendants may be able to show their conduct should not be viewed as harassment.” In petitioning for review, the attorneys for Warner Brothers Television Productions warned that letting jurors decide whether sexual discussions in the development of scripts were justified could “chill speech” in many workplaces. “The opinion,” Adam Levin, a partner in L.A.’s Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp, wrote, “hangs like Damocles’ sword over the heads of employees in any workplace in which speech, particularly that which might offend others, is an integral part of the ‘business’ and an indispensable part of the job.” He argued that such speech falls under the protections of the First Amendment and the California Constitution. “Cautious employers,” Levin continued, “can be expected, in view of the court of appeal’s opinion, to direct writers, professors, artists and other employees in ‘communicative workplaces’ to check their First Amendment rights at the workplace door.” In granting review, the Supreme Court told attorneys to argue whether “sexually coarse and vulgar language in the workplace” constitutes harassment under the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. The court also sought debate about whether FEHA liability in such cases violates free-speech rights. Lyle had also petitioned the court for review, but only on the appeal court’s decision denying her claims that she was terminated, in violation of FEHA, because of race and gender bias. She also argued that she was fired for insisting that more blacks be featured on the show. The appeal court dismissed the discrimination and retaliation claims, finding that Lyle was terminated because she couldn’t type fast enough. The high court denied review. Lyle is represented by the Law Offices of Mark Weidmann in Los Angeles. The case is Lyle v. Warner Brothers Television Productions, S125171.

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